7 Comments

  1. Fr. Ivan, thank you so much for this first article. I have to say that in reading your article I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying. I agree that we must look to engage the world and not form an Orthodox ghetto. I have to admit that I do not understand music enough to be a good judge of its possibilities, but I know visual art and I am very surprised by the examples you give of what you are saying.

    I love the image of bringing “to the deathbed” of contemporary culture. For Baptism is ultimately a “putting to death”, as says St-Gregory of Nyssa comparing baptism to Moses crossing the red sea: « …after we have drowned the whole Egyptian person (that is every form of evil) in the saving baptism we emerge alone, dragging along nothing foreign in our subsequent life. » In that vein though its seems that when attempting to baptize modern and contemporary art, we must be astute to the languages they employ and the references they contain in order to “circumcise” them as they are being baptised.

    For example, in the image by Fr.Skliris Nymphios, the immediate references invoked by his painting are Dada and “bad painting” in the likes of Francis Picabia with shading in the style of Max Beckman. It is strange for example to notice how he painted the image of Christ on corrugated cardboard which affects the image, letting some of that cardboard show through the paint on the edges while smearing the lettering of his Name and badly drawing the circle of his Glory… All those references to “bad painting” are there in the image. The question is what does it mean to paint Christ like that with a reference to throw away materials and hasty paintbrush work? In the case of Dada and Cubism which used these techniques, the intent was clear: Destroy the hierarchy of visual and material order, subvert precious vs. common, beauty vs. ugly, artisan (well-made) vs. industrial. Is that what he is doing? If so, why? If not, then what is he doing?

    The same seems to go for the cubist deposition. What does it mean when lines are cut through human figures in non-descriptive ways, through bodies and faces, where colour breaks apart and does not follow the form of something? What is the difference between this deposition and the crucifixion by Graham Sutherland or for that matter the one by Francis Bacon? In what manner is this a baptism? I could say much more about the Bogdanović image as well.

    It seems to me when St-Ephraim the Syrian baptized Pagan poetry, he did so in a way that transfigured it and filled its forms with the symbolic patterns of Scripture itself, referring through the poetic languages and rhythms of the pagans to the rythms of the Christian web of analogies. He did not reproduce the jarring imagery of the Bacchae or the suggestive wordplay of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria. That is why I think you are on a much sounder note with Kordis. His work is far more anchored in a synthesis of the Old World both Christian and Pagan, attempting to look at how it connects to the post-modern world through color, lyricism and trying to examine how surrealism is akin to ancient notions of “personification” and liminal imagery of creatures like angels and mermaids.

  2. Jonathan, thank you for your comments.

    I am aware that this is “dangerous” ground, and I intended to be provocative here, precisely because I think this is something we need to think about within the context of Orthodox liturgical (and paraliturgical) arts.

    Firstly, I should say that I do not necessarily defend or even like some of the music or plastic art about which I write, but I do think it valuable in the search for a proper understanding of what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. In the case of the Nymphios by Fr Skliris, for example, while I take your point about “bad painting” completely, here I understand him to be transcending that area of art, and, in that sense, baptizing it. It’s a question of perspective in many ways: one can choose to see the corrugated cardboard or one can choose to see Christ (a very good metaphor for seeing Christ wherever we look, of course).

    I do not argue that this is an appropriate way always to paint icons, or to paint them for use in a church. I do argue that Fr Skliris has found, painted, written Christ in a place where one might not expect to find Him.

    As for the Serbian painters, they are working from the other side of the glass, as it were. They are trying to find the sacred within the vocabulary they have, which is, of course, not that of the tradition of iconography. And I should also make it clear that I am not positing those works as being icons.

    George Kordis has indeed achieved a synthesis; what I want to make clear is that with e Christ-centred view, that synthesis may *begin* from many different points. Whether it achieves its aim or not is, of course, another question.

    1. Despite my comments, I think your point definitely comes across clearly and like I said, I agree with you wholeheartedly. But since it is a messy world we might have different perspectives on how discussions with modernism and post-modernism can come about. Aidan Hart speaks of “intimations” of the sacred in some of modernism, though he tends to favor Brancusi, Kandinski and other “spiritual” abstract work such as Mondrian and Rothko. I might be more conservative, but strangely enough I am more conservative partly because I come from contemporary art, having done the whole mixed-media post-modern painting thing when I took a studio after my studies… I do appreciate a few contemporary artists, like Anselm Kiefer who I believe has a kind of alchemical approach to history and art which might itself the “putting to death” that is baptism. But only the future will tell us what will emerge from the waters…

  3. Fr. Moody, Thank you for your very insightful and thought provoking article. As an artist and a deacon in the Latin Rite I am aware that the lines for what is acceptable as liturgical art within my Rite have been virtually erased within the last sixty years. It is interesting to note that this development has not, in my opinion, enriched or enhanced our liturgical worship or prayer life. There is, however, disagreement within our Rite as to what constitutes proper liturgical art, settings, music, architecture, etc. This in turn has caused confusion and dissent. You have clergy and laity alike taking sides as to what is acceptable architecture (both exterior and interior), art, and music and whether or not it is conducive to prayer and liturgical worship.
    I mention this just to offer a note of caution; and also to express the fact that in reaction to the “experiments” of the last sixty years there is a growing number of young clergy within my Rite that are refreshed by the liturgical art prior to the 1450’s. So Modernism, while not dying, is at least suffering from a critical disease.
    I, too, am experimenting with technique and materials. I agree that some sacred artists are searching for a way of expressing the voice of Scriptural Tradition and the revelation of Christ and His Church to people who are in dire need of evangelization.
    The materials that an artist uses is irrelevant; it is whether or not the sacred image that is created sings the song of theological, artistic, and semantic “correctness.” As you and your readers know, in the past this “correctness” was based solely on Church tradition. In the 21st century I believe it will be based on Church tradition plus artistic innovation that speaks to the needs and touches the hearts, minds, and souls of our people.
    Do we not agree that sacred art’s main purpose is to prayerfully turn us back to God and the truth of HIs redemption of man? If a piece of “sacred art” doesn’t accomplish this fact then it becomes just another cultural artifact.
    In my particular case I paint sacred images in the iconographic tradition. I use this phrase “painting sacred images in the iconographic tradition” because I am intentionally not trying to paint sacred icons in the iconographic tradition of the Orthodox Church. That tradition is the specific “voice” of the Orthodox. It is not my role as a Latin Rite deacon to try to sing that particular song.
    Five out of my eight art teachers are of the Orthodox Rite. I have come away from that training with a specific perspective. Yet, while I am enriched by your Church Tradition and artistic perspective, I have the duty to “connect” with contemporary society, and my fellow Christians, by singing a song that resonates with them. It is my goal to evangelize the truth, goodness, and beauty of God through the prayerful creation of sacred art.
    You can see an example of one of my sacred images, Jesus Our Savior, in a recent post I made on my website: http://www.fraangelicoinstitute.com.
    As it relates to the art that you presented, I find Lazar Vozarevics, 1956 Pieta, to be a profound work of contemporary spiritual art. My criteria for saying this is that I could easily pray with this piece of art.
    Fr. Nymphios’ and Professor Kordis’ work, while competent also raises the question in my mind of whether they were painted to promote prayer, to simply present Scriptural truth, or to, in Kordis’ case, to delight the eye, like Matisse, with the “dance” of the Sacred message. But, this is a very subjective issue. What is my prayerful image is another person’s dissonance.
    Thanks for providing a challenging article.

  4. Father Deacon Paul,

    Thank you very much for this response, in which you articulate much of what I was aiming at in my article. One thing I would point out is that the painting by George Kordis reproduced is not intended to be an icon; it is, rather, a painting that evokes icons. He knows very well the difference between one thing and the other, but the fact that he is able to evoke a whole world of spiritual art (i.e., that of icon painting) in his “secular” work is precisely relevant to what I was discussing, as I see you understand very well.

    I wonder if, with paraliturgical art, we might not aim at something that can “promote prayer, […] simply present Scriptural truth, (and) […] delight the eye, like Matisse, with the “dance” of the Sacred message” all at once?

    1. Fr. Moody,
      Thank you for your reply.
      Yes, I agree, we must strive to project our love for Christ and His Church, and Christ’s joyful love for us, through our art.
      As you know, evangelization of the Word of God should not and does not have to be boring. Yet, this is where we step out onto thin ice – where sacred artists in their zeal – can go too far, and, in a fit of excess, blur Truth and Tradition.
      In my opinion, neither Vozarevics, Nymphios, or Kordis are excessive, nor, do they blur Truth and Tradition in their paraliturgical art.
      I must admit, however, I do not understand what Bogdanavic is trying to say. Thus, where is the simplicity of message? Where is the simplicity of Truth and Tradition?
      Thankfully, God in HIs mercy, knows that we, and our art, are a work in progress!
      May the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

  5. John Simmons

    The essence of early cubism was an attempt to paint in four dimensions, simple planes are used as it is to hard to conceptualize with anything more complex. See Jean Gebser as to why interiority, time-freedom and higher dimensions were considered the escape ladder away from the dead anthropocentrism of Renaissance perspective painting (with the viewer outside in a frozen moment, and eternity unreachable over the vanishing point). Art is an epistemology on Canvas, and Iconography with its reverse perspective, is the ultimate good news. I would never dream of wanting to alter Icons, Hymnography or traditional chant, but I am also a modern poet, artist and musician, with a foot and a vision in both the traditional Orthodox worldview and the postmodern world. “Postmodern” art from an Orthodox Phronema is not about changing traditional Orthodox arts, but building bridges from one world to the other. I still have a collection of Orthodox punk ‘zines with the ‘zine aesthetic which built such a bridge with great effectiveness.

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